Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week, we’re talking about leisure in the United States.
Last week, Uber announced its plans to roll out its first self-driving car initiative next month in Pittsburgh. The move shouldn’t come as a surprise: Uber has been running a well-funded self-driving car program internally for years. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the goal is “to replace Uber’s more than 1 million human drivers with robot drivers — as quickly as possible.”
Robot workers and the “automation bomb” loom even as some Americans find themselves working more hours than ever. Yet at both extremes, a similar question arises: What will all of those out-of-work humans do? When we aren’t working, how should we make our time matter?
Without an answer, many wealthy but overworked Americans seem willing (or at least have resigned themselves) to forgo the free time they do receive. In the United States, the number of unused vacation days is at a 40-year high, despite the fact that most workers wish that they had more.
Yet the prospect of fewer working hours for their blue-collar counterparts seems to fill many with dread. One of the persistent pushbacks to the idea of a universal basic income is a fear that too much leisure will lead to degeneracy — that if people aren’t made to work, they’ll just waste away alone in front of a television or computer.
But this response suggests that we as a society have lost our understanding of what leisure time should be and why it has value. We’ll need to regain a better understanding of leisure both to preserve society in a post-work world and to save it from an all-work one.
So what should leisure be? In classical philosophy, leisure is is lauded as essential to a fulfilling life. Aristotle stated that “we are un-leisurely in order to have leisure” — in other words, we work to have time for other things. But those other things aren’t just “doing nothing” or even resting up for the next workday. In a philosophical context, leisure is meant to be something else entirely: time in which we can be free to do things that matter to us, activities undertaken for their own sake rather than as a means to another end.
What might that mean in the real world? It’s an opportunity for engagement with our families, friends and the outside world, including the structures we’ve built to organize our society. (If we had the leisure time to involve ourselves more, would our government look the way it does?) It’s a time for thought, contemplation, creativity and learning for learning’s sake. (After all, many of our best inventions, greatest art and most enduring ideas have originated in moments of leisure.) And it’s a space to pause, to consider our own lives and choices, and to make changes if necessary. In short, the ability to seek out and tend to our own human flourishing, a task that writers like Ross Douthat have suggested we’ve outsourced to our employment.
The United States’ Founding Fathers, often trained in the classical tradition, acknowledged the value of this sort of leisure. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, among others, often stressed the need to take time away from “work” for leisurely pursuits, including the study of math and architecture or the development of political and scientific theory. And while it would be fair to point out that this conception of leisure was originally meant only for the upper classes — those who had servants or slaves to do most of the work for them while they reveled in their free time — it seems that on some level we’re all becoming part of that class.
In modern America and the rest of the rich world, leisure time has been on the rise since formal national time-use surveys began in 1965. The rise in automation means that we’ll have even more of it going forward — we’ll just have to learn how to use it correctly.
The question, however, will be just how to re-embrace this positive understanding of leisure. Is there a place for schools to educate not just in how to best fill the “jobs of the future” but also in how to use the leisure time meant to exist alongside it? Will employers, now at least purporting to understand the value of time off, actually allow employees to untether themselves from email and focus on the broader world? Can we individually conceive of using our free hours to do something productive, even if we might not get paid for it?
However we can manage it, we should find a way to bring a real understanding of leisure back. As our economy shifts, we’re going to need it.